Rant: The Decline of the Shooter (or lack thereof)

If you wander into the right circles, you’ll find a group of people that insist Doom (or sometimes Quake) was the epitome of gaming, that modern gamers are stupid, and today’s shooters are excessively linear and loaded down with extraneous elements like cutscenes and set pieces. Now, I’m not going to attempt to defend Call of Duty as the best thing since sliced bread (since it isn’t), but I am going to say this: Anyone who thinks that shooters went downhill after id’s classics is insanely arrogant and completely ignorant.

First of all, let’s list the usual complaints:
-Modern shooters are too linear.
-Modern shooters have too much handholding.
-Gameplay is dumbed down.
-Cinematics are extraneous and only break up the flow.
-Level design is boring.
-Elements like perks, regenerating health, only two weapons are bullshit.

Now let’s take a look at the supposed example of awesomeness, id Software’s classic, Doom. In the interest of full disclosure, I will point out that I do play Doom, but I play it in GZDoom with WASD controls and mouselook at 1920×1080 with 8xAF and HQ2x texture filtering. Also mostly for the mods; in fact I’m working on a TC of my own. I have very little love for the original game mechanics, though, and to me Doom is a little like Angry Birds in that it’s something fun to kill time when you’ve got a moment here or there.

But let’s go back to the original points, and the shining example of Doom. Doom’s gameplay basically boils down to killing monsters and finding keys and hitting switches to advance to the next area. When you put it that way, it sounds pretty damn boring. The keys and switches are in one spot, all the time, and for the most part they’re in order. Now, it’s not linear to the degree of Call of Duty’s “you can’t move on until I open this door for you”, but it still falls under most definitions of linear. You can carry all the weapons at once, health is by pickups, and there’s nothing fancy in regards to skills or inventory management. As for showing you what to do and where to go, you’re on your own (unless you have a guide).

Now we’re getting into more subjective territory. In my opinion, the level design of Doom is absolute shit. The levels play well enough, and some of them look kind of neat, but they make no logical sense. Whatsoever. When I’m thinking of a Nuclear Plant, I’m definitely thinking of a room with a bunch of columns, a small slime pit and a random maze attached to the side of a corridor. Where’s the reactor? The generator hall? The control room? Some levels are better than others- Doom 2 has some city levels that look vaguely like a city, for example. There’s no real flow between maps, either- I hit a switch and suddenly I’m in another environment, with a completely different design style. Of course, the counter-argument is that maps are for playing, not for looking at.

The story is told through static text screens between episodes, and there isn’t much of it. Fans of Doom say that story is unnecessary and pure gameplay is the way it’s meant to be. In my opinion, this is utter bullshit. Without a reason, the game feels pointless. I’m killing these demons to get to the end of the level. Why am I killing these demons? What happened to everyone here? Doom fans reply, who cares? To me, though, it’s like watching a movie where there’s no plot to speak of- just some random exploring peppered with occasional bouts of violence. Perhaps not the best analogy, but it just feels like something is missing.

Let’s do a mental 180 now and look at the antithesis of Doom, what’s generally slammed down as an example of why FPS games today suck. It doesn’t really matter which one, as long as it has Modern Warfare in the title. But just for the sake of argument, let’s take the latest one to bear the Modern Warfare name: MW3.

Fundamentally, its gameplay is all about moving from point A to point B, following some loud guy, killing bad guys and occasionally doing some menial task. When you put it that way, it sounds pretty boring, too. It’s also as linear as Doom and more restrictive, since you can’t go back and you don’t have a lot of control over where you go and how you do things. There’s a tutorial level right at the beginning, and onscreen prompts after that telling you what to do and where to go. It has the regenerating health, two weapons, and in multiplayer mode a degree of leveling, but no complex inventory management or in-depth leveling- it’s not to the point of being an RPG.

Here, I think, is where a clear distinction must be made. Doom provides gameplay. Modern Warfare 3 provides an experience.

Modern Warfare 3’s level design is designed to look good, and look right. The subway is a subway. New York looks like New York. The African jungle is the African jungle. There’s giant set-pieces thrown in that break up the action, for better or for worse. There’s a story- a mad Russian trying to destroy the world and another man with a personal vendetta against him. It’s told through dialogue inserted throughout the gameplay, through in-level cutscenes, and through cutscenes between the levels. There’s a reason for what you’re doing, there’s backstory, and you don’t have to go into the manual to find it.

Does it provide a particularly deep story? No. I’ve always liked to compare Modern Warfare to a big-budget action movie. It’s designed to be a fun, visually impressive and relatively short romp of violence. The holes will start to show if you think about it a lot, but if it’s your first time watching you’ll leave the theatre feeling satisfied. Again, whether gameplay should be prioritized over experience or not is subjective.

I’m going to do something completely different now, and look at the middle ground. I’m going to throw out a few games that kind of sit between Doom and Modern Warfare 3.

The first is a contemporary of Quake and its immediate sequel, one that launched a gaming giant and one that is an indisputable classic. I’m talking, of course, about the original Half-Life. While made not long after Quake, Half-Life was built with a completely different attitude. The gameplay is not that different- shoot things and find the exit- but Half-Life added simple puzzles to the mix. In that way, it is of a similar linearity and slightly more complexity than Doom. The big difference is that Half Life delivers a story. It opens with an intro cutscene and various bits of dialogue and cutscenes are mixed into the gameplay. It explains what’s going on and why, though usually you’re left with even more questions. Levels play well, but make sense- you might have to use a vent to bypass an electrified corridor, for example. I consider Half-Life one of the first modern shooters- it delivered an experience.

The next is its sequel, Half Life 2, and you might as well include its episodes as well. Half Life 2 is fundamentally similar to its predecessor, but it adds a few new things to the mix. Advancements in technology mean vehicles and physics puzzles have become key elements to the gameplay, and environments look even better. There’s even more story focus- rather than meeting various people in passing, you are introduced to a core cast of characters and follow them throughout the story. Like Half Life, there’s no regenerating health, limited weapons, or other potentially objectionable elements. It’s very linear, but generally lets you find your own way (so long as its the way the developers planned), and has some set pieces sprinkled in strategically. It’s not the sensory overload of Call of Duty, but it’s not flat like Doom either. Both Half-Life games might be compared to a more relaxed spy thriller rather than the pure action movie of Call of Duty.

Finally, one of my favorite games, and what I think is still one of the best shooters in terms of gameplay. Rainbow Six: Vegas 2. It’s kind of an odd one out in that it’s based on a franchise of tactical shooters that gradually became de-tacticalized. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is again subjective and again another article. Story is told through dialogue and cutscenes in missions. What’s different is that you can choose how you’re going to approach a situation- breach in through the door, go around through the back door, rappel in through the roof, or shoot through the windows. It sounds minor, but it makes gameplay a lot more varied. You’re still restricted in overall flow, and you still don’t have any control over the story, but you get some flexibility. As for the storytelling, it’s a mixed bag. It doesn’t make a lot of sense the first time around, and storytelling is pretty sloppy, but it would probably be a lot tighter if you played the first Vegas. Is it a great game? No. But I like to hold it up as an example of what games should strive for- give the player some choice. That’s something Call of Duty doesn’t provide, and something that Doom provides very little of.

As an aside, I’d like to direct everyone to the Doom Bible. No, it’s not a prediction of the destruction of humanity- it’s Doom’s original design document, written by Tom Hall way back in the early nineties. What makes it very interesting is that it describes a shooter that would be at home today. A focus on story, cinematic cutscenes interspersed throughout, and even some RPG elements. From what I’ve read, John Carmack disagreed and wanted to make a pure shooter, and eventually Tom Hall left the company. It makes me wonder what the world would be like if the situation was reversed. I can just imagine the old-timers slamming Call of Duty for being a mindless killfest versus the masterful experience that was Doom.

If you Doomers or CoD fanboys are thinking that this article sat on the fence the whole time and didn’t make a point, that’s kind of the point. Call of Duty does have its issues, but so does Doom, and for the most part modern shooters haven’t lost their touch- they’ve evolved.

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One Response to “Rant: The Decline of the Shooter (or lack thereof)”

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